"Jack Was Here" graffiti pays stenciled homage to Kerouac

Sixty years after Jack Kerouac filled a 120-foot scroll in a haze of lust, creative ambition and amphetamines that resulted in the original On the Road, producer Francis Ford Coppola is actually making a movie of the book — his third attempt. But while On the Road is a distinctly American classic, he's filming the entire movie in Canada.

That snub is particularly egregious considering that Denver factors prominently into the action — in fact, you could argue that our fair city is a main character in the book. While, sure, some of the action takes place on either coast, Denver is like the meat of that literary sandwich, providing the book with a prodigious amount of its soul, not to mention its hands-down best character: one Dean Moriarty, known in real life as Neal Cassady, Denver boy and Beat god.

And in the rabble-rousing spirit of Cassady himself, at least one team of "elite street thugs" is not taking the slight lying down. For the last few months, cloaked in secrecy and carrying a copy of On the Road and a handful of stencils, this group has been visiting known Kerouac hangouts and doing the writer a favor he may or may not have gotten around to himself: tagging them with a likeness and the words "JACK WAS HERE."

"I got the idea when I heard about the film adaptation coming out," explains the artist and ringleader, a shadowy figure who calls himself only Theo. "The filmmakers substituted Gatineau, Quebec, for Denver. I've been a Kerouac addict for years, and I've always wanted to pay tribute to the author in some way, but it only recently hit me just how this could be done: It's just a simpler reminder that Kerouac was here in Denver and not some small town in Canada that no one's ever heard of. I think it's an appropriate gesture to celebrate one counterculture with another."

You can find the art in the 2100 block of Larimer Street and the Taco Bell on East Colfax (it wasn't a Taco Bell when Kerouac was here, by the way); a tag put on the opera house in Central City, where Kerouac spent time, has already been removed. And this Friday, the Kerouac Project, sponsored by the AWE Collective, will take its show on the road — at least to Crash 45, a new bar and gallery space at 321 East 45th Avenue. Until then, watch for a Q&A with Theo on our Show and Tell blog.

Westword recognized the best of the local Web again in 2011 with the Denver Web Awards, held on Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at Casselman's. Below are the winners for this year; here the 2011 Denver Web Awards finalists. -- Nick Lucchesi

Colorado Peak Politics is Denver's Best Political Blog

Because of the secret-secret nature of this blog, it's not entirely clear where it's based. But we're awarding it Denver's Best Political Blog anyway, because, hell, we're in Denver and we read it – especially when we're in the mood for some conservative snark. Digging into the criminal record of Pueblo state rep and congressional candidate Sal Pace and discovering not one, but two (!!) arrests for public urination? Brilliant. Calling him Rep. Sal Pace (D-Urination)? Even more brilliant. -- Melanie Asmar

Lynn Bartels is Denver's Best Journalist on Twitter

Lynn Bartels has been providing blow-by-blow insight into the doings and dealings of Colorado politicians for decades. Now she also does it in 140 characters, tweeting a combination of news and commentary. A recent example? Her response to radio host and author David Sirota, who just couldn't let his wife's loss in the Denver Public Schools board race go. Twoth Bartels: @davidsirota David, Move On. Dot Org. -- Melanie Asmar

Mindy Crane and Stacey Stegman from the Colorado Department of Transportation are Denver's Best PR Flacks on Twitter.

Okay, okay. We know texting while driving is illegal. But tweeting while driving? Oh, @ColoradoDOT, you make it so tempting. Want to know if the chain law has been lifted on Wolf Creek Pass? Tweet CDOT! Need to know which alternate exit to use when part of I-25 gets shut down because of an accident? CDOT's Twitter is there for you, providing traffic updates and answering questions promptly...you know, so you don't miss that exit. -- Melanie Asmar

Mike Henderson is Denver's Best Bartender on Twitter

@MikeHendersonCO, who tends bar at Root Down, sure likes his spirits. And he's not afraid to do some shameful self-promoting, either, luring drinkers to his watering hole with tweets promising hard-to-get New Glarus beer from Wisconsin and a new drink called the Beet Down. (LOL). But he's not all biznass, all the time. The guy also has a sense of humor, as is evident in this tweet: “Are your Mojitos gluten-free?” #onlyincolorado -- Melanie Asmar

The Redheaded Slut is Denver's Best Sex Blogger

The Redheaded Slut is a self-described “kinky Stepford wife.” She's also a no-holds-barred sex blogger with a sense of humor. Her posts are often funny and easy to read, even for those not familiar with the jargon of the kink scene. Take this snippet from a recent post: “I'm going to throw an ice cream fetishist party. It's only going to be for hardcore dairy aficionados. The lactose-intolerant need not apply. Aren't a fan of cones? Don't show up. Not into sprinkles? Get the hell out. Fro-yo lovers? What. The. Fuck.” -- Melanie Asmar

Kirsten Evans's High Altitude Planking is Denver's Web Photo of the Year

This photo is badass. Not for its superior use of composition and light or because the photographer used the correct F-stop or whatever, but because the woman in the photo – one Kirsten Evans – is a fearless motherfucker doing what fearless motherfuckers do: planking at 14,265 feet. Somebody get this lady an award. -- Melanie Asmar

Phish Show Parking Lot Fight is Denver's Most Viral Local Video of the Year

This video is gruesome. A skinny shirtless guy covered in blood faces off against a clearly upset (and much bigger) guy with a graying ponytail while onlookers in the parking lot of a September Phish show at Dick's Sporting Goods Park shout things like “You're gonna go to fucking jail, dumbass!” The video spread like wildfire, inspiring hundreds of comments, dueling Facebook pages and a Westword cover story. -- Melanie Asmar

Queerradical.com is Denver's Best Activist Blogger

Few people would probably ask the same person for sex advice and political interpretation, but the anonymous Queer Radical has the answers to both. With clarity, insight and brash humor, Queer Radical covers topics that will intrigue, infuriate and maybe even annoy you, and does it with brave and creative aplomb across the board. Maintained by donations, the site is an Internet commentary on the sexual revolution penned by a truly sassy online revolutionary. -- Kelsey Whipple

Boulder's Best Twitter User is @downtownboulder

Group-run public city accounts don't have to be boring. There's a reason Downtown Boulder boasts more than 7,000 followers: Its short, straight-to-the-point updates cover both the basics and the deep cuts of events, openings, concerts, restaurant news and the mildly awe-inspiring span of goings-on near the city's Pearl Street Mall. But pay careful attention to the hashtags here: They often betray the real opinion (read: sarcasm) of an otherwise perfectly polite account. -- Kelsey Whipple

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Photos: 2011 Denver #WebAwards party

Occupy Denver is Denver's Best Social or Political Campaign

With no tents or structures allowed and regular run-ins with the police, it would be understandable if Occupy Denver struggled to keep the world updated on the movement. But that's hardly the case: The group has occupied Twitter, Facebook and its own easy-to-use website since the beginning of its reign downtown, and all three provide a functional, readily comprehensible approach to a city that the Daily Beast recently voted the angriest in America. -- Kelsey Whipple

Denver's Best Eater on Twitter is @IndieEats

Thanks to dues paid in the hospitality world, @IndieEats' bite-sized chunks of culinary information are served with insider knowledge that makes them both fun to read and easy to chew. The account details the trials and travails of regular foodie encounters while consistently interacting with other Denver food-lovers to create a rewarding and diverse weekly exchange of news and ideas from both kitchens and dining rooms. -- Kelsey Whipple

Denver's Best Food Truck on Twitter is @quieroarepas

This conversational Twitter guide reveals the personality that's possible from only the friendliest of food trucks. Quiero Arepas provides detailed updates and directions to its daily locations while politely adding apologies (and traffic updates) when it occasionally runs late. Always upbeat, its users aren't afraid to add some silly to its salsa: One recent tweet shared the music video for Devo's "Whip It." -- Kelsey Whipple

John Moore is Denver's Best Arts Blogger

Although he started his career at the Denver Post in 1993 as a baseball editor, John Moore has since become both synonymous with and incredibly successful in the theater world. Moore, who was recently named one of American Theater magazine's twelve most influential theater critics, has spent the past decade maintaining painstakingly comprehensive and wonderfully creative coverage of local theater, with none of the stereotypical pretension that would keep people from finding a niche, exploring it and ultimately loving it. -- Kelsey Whipple

Tanner Spendley Runs Denver's Best Flickr pool

During his unpaid tenure as a freelance photographer, Tanner Spendley's stunning and emotional photos have crossed such mainstream media outlets as Fox and CNN. His most recent work centers on the widely varying scenes at Occupy Denver, where he lends simplicity and immediacy to violent outbreaks and peaceful protests alike. Spendley demands no payment for his work, which is readily available on both his Flickr page and his personal website. He asks only for the opportunity to share it. -- Kelsey Whipple

Photos: 2011 Denver #WebAwards party

@Smotus is Denver's Best Twitter User

We are living in serious times. There's that 2012 election, for starters, and Harold Camping's still around to continue predicting the end of the world. And, oh, yeah, the economy. So for best tweeter, we need someone who's serious. Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver who writes for HuffPo, blogs about how the Dark Knight relates to the War on Terror, gets mentions in the Washington Post and tweets things like "I will pay a Politico employee $40K to harass me." -- Jenny An

Big World, Small Kitchen is Denver's Best Food Blog

With one of the most professional-looking independent blogs on the web, great photos, and the web savvy to include easy-to-print recipes, it's hard to quibble with Kazia Jankowski's Big World Small Kitchen. The blog mostly covers what the culinary-school-educated writer is cooking, accompanied by lovely, minimalist photographs, but it's her narratives about how cooking, eating and life are connected that cinches this win. Okay, one quibble: More updates, please! -- Jenny An

TAG has Denver's Best Restaurant Website

TAG's website has everything a restaurant website should have: There's luscious food porn, an easy-to-find menu that's not a .pdf, and the hours ― including happy hour, or, as they call it, “social hour” ― are brilliantly located at the bottom of the page. Links to the Denver restaurant's OpenTable page, Twitter and Facebook profiles and a Yelp! page are handy, as well. And the fact that it doesn't blare cheesy jazz or adult contemporary the second you open it? Glorious. -- Jenny An

Forkly is Denver's Best Locally Built Food App

You're hungry, so what do you do? Denver-based Forkly lets you know which restaurants are close by, tells you what other eaters thought of the food, and provides a phone number you can call with a tap. For the directionally challenged, there's even a map. Places like Great Divide offer perks for hard-core Forkly users, and who doesn't love free beer? -- Jenny An

South Stands Denver Fancast is Denver's Best Podcast

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South Stands Denver Fancast is a sports podcast that's a fun listen even for non-sports fans. There are the standard play-by-plays and personal speculations about pro-sports, but there's also plenty of pop culture and shit talk for the rest. Hosts John Reidy (of the A.V. Club's Jock Itch fame), Colin Daniels and Aaron X. Mikulich throw in sex euphemisms whenever they get the chance, especially when they're talking Tebow. -- Jenny An

Denver Off the Wagon is Denver's Best Booze Blog

When it comes to a stable of booze writers, Denver Off the Wagon is a band that's tough to beat. Mix some of the city's best bartenders, chefs and enthusiasts with a healthy shot of expert knowledge and the behind-the-scenes scoop on what's happening in the Denver booze scene, and you've got a site that's not safe for consuming before happy hour. You've been warned: It will make you thirsty. -- Jenny An

@VagTalk is Denver's Best Artist on Twitter

Denver-based comic-book artist and poet Sommer Browning is really fucking funny. Whether it's a twitpic glimpse of her book Either Way I'm Celebrating, which details the things she's belligerently against (iced coffee, flip-flops, therapy and getting her picture taken) or a charmingly irreverent statement like "Modern day vampire test: See if their fingers can activate an iPhone," cue the girl crush now. Not particularly for the faint of heart, VagTalk's humor is sometimes dark and dirty, but you probably already figured that out. -- Jenny An

360 Panorama is Denver's Best Photo Phone App

Whether you want a sweeping panoramic photo of the Rockies or one of your tiny cubicle, 360 Panorama, from Boulder-based Occipital, can do that. Turn it on, spin around, and your iPhone (or iPad) will have a panoramic image ready within twenty seconds. Bonus: The app makes it easy to Facebook, Tweet and e-mail the stunning view from the fourteener you just climbed or the depths of your boredom in the office. -- Jenny An

@Isisspeaks is Denver's Best MC on Twitter

If the daring gaze from her big brown eyes doesn't draw you in immediately, her bio ("I can give it to you but what you gon' do with it?,” from Method Man) surely will. Isis Speaks is the artist to follow on Twitter. Honest, direct, cultured and funny, Isis – also a Westword Music Showcase Award winner – is an emerging MC on the hip-hop scene. Her joking and easy demeanor have garnered her respect from many of her peers. Usually riffing on music (she loves Nina Simone), style (hates men with mohawks), and womanism (she's a staunch feminist), Isis makes Twitter a much more entertaining place. -- Ru Johnson

@KdjaBoVe is Denver's Best DJ on Twitter

KDJ Above is a DJ who's figured out how to make Twitter work for him. Using his timeline to promote his endless gigs (on any given night, he's likely to be spinning somewhere in the city), his mix show and his quest for good music, KDJ Above's tweets are fun-filled and easy to follow. There's an equal amount of promotion, conversation and links to good music. He shares what he's listening to, previews tracks he plans to spin at the club, and keeps a solid stream of hip-hop running through the timeline on a daily basis. -- Ru Johnson

CobraConda's "BBHM$" is Denver's Best Music Video on YouTube

"BBHM$" (shorthand for "Bitch better have my money"), CobraConda's highly explicit video, is an homage to the vices these guys admire – namely, sex, drugs and, well, partying. From the scenes depicting fellatio to the brazen cocaine consumption, the clip pushes the envelope of what is acceptable for music videos and offers a birds-eye view of hedonism in the flesh. -- Britt Chester

Photos: 2011 Denver #WebAwards party

Club Vinyl is Denver's Best Nightclub on Facebook

It's not out of the ordinary to see constant promotional updates from clubs; after all, it's their job to promote their shows. Vinyl goes even further by posting random photos, quotes and links to pictures of the venue's events on Facebook. With a commanding social-media presence, Vinyl does a fine job of engaging club-goers, with unique promotions such as photo contests for patrons, who have the chance to be named “Fan of the Month” and receive free bottle service on a night of their choosing. -- Britt Chester

EpicMix is Denver's Best Locally Designed Smartphone App

For skiers, snowboarders and people who generally enjoy the mountains and snow, EpicMix is the ideal application. It logs ascended vertical feet, awards pins for accomplishments, allows users to post photos and keeps all the information online, so you can constantly check to see who's close to winning (if it was a contest) most days on the mountain. Basically, it's Foursquare, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all compressed into one easy-to-use application. The only drawback is that it only includes Vail Resorts affiliated slopes, so you Mary-Janers and Aspen adventurers are S.O.L. (Snow Outta Luck). -- Britt Chester

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StagePass is Denver's Best Locally Designed Music App

This smartphone application was just released, but it's unparalleled on the open market (recording studios use this technology). StagePass allows you filter all your music through a certain algorithm so that the audio sounds exactly as it would if you were actually at one of the featured venues. Are you sad that your favorite band has yet to grace the stage at Red Rocks? Fear not: StagePass allows you to hear that super-underground indie band just as if they were rocking the Rocks. Comprising more than 45 venues so far, StagePass will continue to update its featured venues so you can re-create that one memory from that one show at that one place. -- Britt Chester

The Ralphie Report is Denver's Best Sports Blog

The Ralphie Report's coverage of the struggling CU Buffs football program this year has certainly been a challenge for its writers, who for all their support of the Buffs have to call it like they see it on the field. That said, this SB Nation blog keeps readers engaged with pre- and post-game coverage and the usual SB Nation standard of live game threads, making it an information-heavy distraction from a team that's rebuilding. -- Nick Lucchesi

Colorado Dispensary Services has Denver's Best Use of Social Media by a Medical Marijuana Dispensary or Activist

The world of medical marijuana is often ahead of its more traditional peers when it comes to reaching out to patients via social media, providing news updates and the latest in MMJ policy from around the country. With a robust Facebook presence, CDS posts updates several times daily and matches that pace with its Twitter account, @cdscenters. The competition in the MMJ marketplace is as, um, high as that of any other industry in Colorado, but CDS leads the pack. -- Nick Lucchesi

@JohnElway is Denver's Best Sports Team on Twitter

Now, before you cry foul because John Elway isn't technically a team, but a person (albeit a larger-than-life one around these parts), know that tweets from @JohnElway provide front-office insight about the Broncos in a way we wish all pro-sports team Twitter accounts did. While @Denver_Broncos may shill merch sales or its own @BroncosTV brand, Elway tweets about what's going on out there on the field. For casual and obsessive Broncos fans alike, he's a must-follow. -- Nick Lucchesi

Ski & Snow Report is Denver's Best Sports Phone App

This app is our winner this year for one reason: “Powder Alerts” function, which allows a user to set up an alert that will notify him when snowfall in his favorite ski area has increased. Want to know when the high country's gotten more than four inches? You'll be alerted ― hopefully with enough time to call in to work that day. -- Nick Lucchesi

@matt9duchene is Denver's Best Local Athlete on Twitter

Tim Tebow may get all the attention, but the Denver athlete with the most entertaining Twitter account is Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche -- if for no other reason than this: Duchene doesn't just use Twitter as a PR tool, nor does he use it for self-aggrandizing or shit talk. Instead, he uses it like the rest of us do. Case in point: His live tweets of the Country Music Awards. Duchene's updates on the CMAs probably annoyed some of his followers, but that just makes him all the more one of us. “Sorry if I annoyed anyone else as much as @TJGaliardi, the CMAs are just a big tv night for me haha.” It's okay, Matt. We're still following you. -- Nick Lucchesi

Robert Chase is Denver's Best Westword.com Commenter

The comment sections of websites, as recently pointed out by Jason Sudeikis as the Devil on SNL, were surely created by Satan. Chock-full of name-calling and personal insults, they are nevertheless what most people read first. Don't lie – you know you do it. Yet Robert Chase, who seems to post only disagreements with other commenters across all parts of the site, is this year's Champion of Commenting, for his volume of comments on issues large and small. Troll on, Robert, troll on. -- Nick Lucchesi

@DenverPolice is Denver's Best Social Media Use by a Public Service

Lieutenant Matt Murray is the officer behind the active @DenverPolice Twitter account, which, in addition to publishing “Overnight” updates about car wrecks and robberies, also takes a pro-active approach to defending its policies, the most apparent being the posting of a poll on the department's controversial use of photo-radar cameras, in which Murray went after the local Fox affiliate for a report the department felt was unfair. This unfettered access to the pulse of a police department should be recognized for its rarity and refreshing nature. -- Nick Lucchesi

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Photos: 2011 Denver #WebAwards party

Visit Denver is Denver's Best Civic Phone App

Some of us, when traveling to a new place, stick to the national apps to tell us where to eat, spend our days and drink away our evenings. But for those who want to immerse themselves in a city for a a few days, especially if that city is Denver, downloading the Visit Denver app for iPhone, Android or the sometimes-awkward-to-carry iPad is worth it. With categories like Free Events, Music, Kids, Science, Sports and Theatre, the app allows you to have fun like a tourist while harnessing the know-how of a local. Then go a step further and talk to the locals while you're here. We're friendly ― promise. -- Nick Lucchesi

This Song Is Sick is Denver's Best Music Blog

An early sign that your blog has made it is when the traffic to your site crashes the servers. That's what happened to Nick Guarino's This Song Is Sick electronic-music blog, when the Boulder-based blogger released an exclusive Big Gigantic song in May. The second sign that your blog has made it is when the imitators – who shall remain nameless here – spring up. What makes This Song Is Sick sing is its run of releasing exclusive tracks – seemingly the best strategy to get visitors returning to your blog daily. -- Nick Lucchesi

Peter Black is Denver's Best Shameless Self-Promoter

First things first: This is a tongue-in-cheek award, given to the hustling-est promoters in Denver, who are pushing their parties, releases, artists or anything else they put their weight behind. That promoter this year is Denver DJ and promoter Peter Black, whose Denver After Dark electronic-music festival this past August was a big hit for its attendance and curated selection of white-hot local music talent. -- Nick Lucchesi

@ChrisParente is Denver's Best TV or Radio Personality on Twitter or Facebook

Sure, as an entertainment reporter, Chris Parente has more leeway to be himself on Twitter and Facebook ― more so than, say, this town's established, ultra-serious reporters. And who would want it any other way? But Parente doesn't just relax and enjoy his status as the token zany TV guy. No, no. His thoroughly entertaining Twitter and Facebook fan pages include these recent gems, which perhaps best sum up his access: getting slapped by Regis Philbin and posing with Miss Piggy and Kermit. Parente's affable style translates well to social media, as he doesn't come off as too serious. -- Nick Lucchesi

Penny Parker is Denver's Biggest Foursquare Addict

Ever met Denver Post gossip columnist and blogger Penny Parker in person (say that three times fast)? That's okay, she'll probably friend you on Foursquare – the addicting social check-in game – anyway. With more than 1,800 check-ins under her belt, Parker seems to be out and about as much as anyone in Denver. And she should be: How else would she land those scoops? -- Nick Lucchesi

Photos: 2011 Denver #WebAwards party

With the Big 4 Tour (Metallica, Megadeath, Anthrax and Slayer) set to roll through massive arenas this spring, die-hard thrash-metal fans will be pleased to know that bands like Canada's 3 Inches of Blood will still be sweating it out in more intimate settings. Despite having formed in 2002, the group purveys a brand of metal that's a throwback to thrash's heyday, when the acts on the Big 4 Tour were still sleeping on floors and Lars Ulrich wasn't such an asshole. The release of 2009's Here Waits Thy Doom on Century Media Records marked the replacement of founding vocalist Jamie Hooper with Cam Pipes, a transition that ultimately appeared seamless, with both singers conjuring images of Overkill's Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth. The group, which toured with Iron Maiden in 2007, celebrates the bombast and spirit that the current Big 4 still possess, but also embodies the blood and grit that its "4" fathers may have forgotten.
Fri., Feb. 11, 7 p.m., 2011
According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2011 is the year of the rabbit, but tonight it’s all about saving the giant panda. Pandas International ― a local nonprofit that focuses on the preservation of the endangered giant panda and provides medical and veterinary supplies to the staffs of several captive giant panda and breeding centers in China ― is hosting its annual Chinese New Year bash at Palace Chinese restaurant, 6265 East Evans Avenue.

The gala, which gets under way at 5:30 p.m., features a silent auction, Chinese lion dancing, a Far East multi-course feast, a grab-bag wine garden, and a lecture on recent developments taking place in the United States and abroad regarding the livelihood of the giant panda. “The earthquake that rocked China in 2008 is still taking its toll – there have been major mud and rockslides in 2009 and 2010 that have damaged the bamboo, and it continues to be a problem for both wild and captive giant pandas” says Pandas International director Suzanne Braden, noting that this is one of the global organization’s largest fundraisers of the year. “It’s always great fun with really good food, cocktails and entertainment, but it really is about helping the giant pandas,” she stresses.

Tickets to the dinner are $55 per person, or $35 for students. To make a reservation, go to www.pandasinternational.org.
Sat., Feb. 26, 5:30-8:45 p.m., 2011

Although he argues that Peter Shaffer's Equus is a theater classic on a level with Death of a Salesman or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Craig Bond, director of Vintage Theatre’s upcoming performance has an explanation for why it isn't staged all that often. “The play won’t give you the rights to do the show unless you do the nudity,” he says. “You actually have to sign an agreement when you get the rights to do the nudity as written in the script.” A classic and nudity: two reasons to go, right there. And nudity is not the main reason, either.

“The Vintage tries to present classic theater that may not have been seen, or to expose people to work that should be seen,” Bond says, and by “work,” he does not mean “body parts.” Rather, he’s making the case for why Equus, the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who stabs the eyes of six horses and the psychiatrist who explores the boy's descent into insanity, is a play that deserves local representation. Although its Tony Award for Best Play in 1975 and its lengthy Broadway run have guaranteed Equus's entry into the theatrical canon, it's not often performed around these parts – and by parts, we do not mean “body parts.”

The show opens at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Vintage, 2119 East 17th Avenue, and continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through March 20; tickets run $15 to $20. For tickets or more information, call 303-839-1361 or go to www.vintagetheatre.com.
Fridays, Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Starts: Feb. 18. Continues through March 20, 2011

Although the two plays were originally written years apart, there’s a distinctly Buntport-like thread between Kafka on Ice, the theater’s most recent resurrection in its tenth-anniversary retrospective season, and The 30th of Baydak, which returns to the stage tonight: Both are funny and heartwarming and charmingly weird, of course, but that basically applies to every Buntport production. More specifically, both deal with the (Kafkaesque?) alienation and absurdity of modern bureaucracy. The difference, says troupe member Brian Colonna, is that “I feel like this one might be a little more bleak.”

Which is saying something. The story follows Yousef, a Turkmen government worker under the totalitarian regime of ruler-for-life Turkmenbashi (who died in 2006). One of Turkmenbashi’s many megalomaniacal eccentricities is his tendency to arbitrarily change the names of things, and it’s Youself’s job to cut the name of the old month of February out of all official documents so that it can be replaced with “Baydak,” the new name. At home, Yousef “lives with a camel,” says Colonna. “He has some conversations with his roommate, and the conflict he has is sort of like the choice he makes to do something in the face of this oppressive regime, the monotony of his life and the absurdity of his situation in general.

“It doesn’t quite work out for him,” he notes.

Buntport hardly ever remounts old productions, so there’s no telling when or if they’ll stage Baydak, originally produced in 2003, again. See it tonight at 8 p.m. and Thursdays through Sundays, through April 23 at the Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street. Tickets for tonight’s opening reception are $20. For showtimes, tickets or more information, go to www.buntport.com or call 720-946-1388.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: April 1. Continues through April 17, 2011

There are wife swaps, country manor and city house swaps, swap meets, and now food swaps, courtesy of the Mile High Swappers, a whole enchilada of like-minded foodniks, beer brewers and grape gurus who convene monthly to trade homemade, homegrown or home-brewed treats and libations. “It’s really fun, incredibly easy, and it’s all about the joy people find in making things that they love,” says founder Eve Orenstein, who claims that food swaps are sweeping the nation.

“It’s a great opportunity for everyone to be adventurous and try new foods or drinks, and cash is strictly forbidden,” she notes, adding that everything is based strictly on bartering, using bid sheets. Today’s Mile High Swappers Food Swap starts trading at 11 a.m. at the West Washington Park Community Garden, 201 Grant Street. Those who want to participate are asked to bring a minimum of five portions of home-created goods; samples to share with the rest of the group are encouraged.

“Homemade ice cream has been really popular, as have farm-fresh backyard eggs — and we even had someone who shot his own elk and then made elk sausage to trade,” says Orenstein. Admission is free, but the wheeling and dealing is limited to thirty people. For more information or to sign up, go to www.milehighswappers.com/Mile_High_Swappers/Events.html.
Sat., July 9, 2011

Josh Beckius is in search of redemption. That's a word that comes up regularly when he talks about his life.

At the age of sixteen, Beckius was charged with the murder of Dayton Leslie James, a night-time manager of the Baseline Cinema Savers in Boulder. The crime, which had occurred two years earlier, in 1993, was one of those stupid, vicious, random events that make people question the benevolence of the universe, and it shocked relatively crime-free Boulder. James was a kindly man, a ballroom dancer who had survived an abusive childhood to raise two loving daughters. He had worked with abused children himself and served as a Big Brother, and he was known to let homeless people into the Cinema Savers for free. The movie house was targeted for robbery by a drug-dazed and incoherent gang whose members called themselves — depending on whom you asked — either the Crazy Boy Crips or the Chinie Boy Crips, most of them teenagers, led by Cambodian refugee Chamroen (Charlie) Pa, whose age no one could pin down, but who was thought by police to be in his early twenties. Beckius, then fourteen, ran with the group. During the course of the robbery, which netted around $2,000, Pa shot James twice, in the chest and the back of the head. A welter of confused and often contradictory testimony — a key component of which turned out later to be false — placed Beckius in the cinema with Pa.     Colorado's felony murder statute states that if a death occurs during the commission of a crime, anyone involved — whether the driver of a getaway car or someone who once conspired with the perpetrators, even if he later backed out — is guilty of first-degree murder, regardless of intent. Beckius's court-appointed attorney, Patrick H. Furman, was aware that this statute could send the teenager to prison for life with no chance for parole, and he felt that speed was of the essence: Charlie Pa was in custody, and whichever defendant agreed first to a plea would get the better deal. Prosecutor Pete Hofstrom accompanied Furman on his first visit to see Beckius, and the two had already hammered out a deal even though no charges had yet been formalized. After a few days of adamant denial, a highly emotional Beckius pleaded guilty to serving as a lookout for Pa.

Dayton James's daughter, Darcy Priola, was present at the sentencing hearing, and she read the court a letter she had written: "Joshua is heartless for doing what he has done. I know he said he had a bad childhood, but so did my dad, and so have a lot of people.... The crimes which he has committed should be punished for a very long time. As far as I'm concerned, a long time will never be enough time for taking my dad from me."

Beckius was sentenced to forty years and sent to the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, an adult facility. (Pa received a sentence of 48 years.) "I thought prison was going to be my life," Beckius says today. "I was in the mind frame that I was just going to die in there."

*****

Josh Beckius is sitting in a Boulder coffee shop, holding a cup of espresso. He has never tasted espresso before, and he's surprised that the cup is so small and the coffee so bitter. But he likes it. Now 32 years old, Beckius has been given a second chance. He is living at Denver's Peer 1, a residential facility that houses men who have criminal histories and a record of substance abuse. He has a job at a tire company and spends weekends with his family. Grateful to be outside prison walls, Beckius is anxious to experience as many new things as he can.

He sets down his cup. There is no special treatment for juveniles sent to adult prisons, he explains. "It was pretty much, 'You were charged and sentenced as an adult, you were sent here, and you're on your own.' The guards didn't go out of their way to ensure your safety. Some guys that have been locked up fifteen, twenty years kind of explain the ropes. One of the things I was taught by them: Don't let anyone disrespect you. People look at you as pretty much weak and an easy target, and that's one thing that you don't want to put out."

Beckius got into fights. He continued to use drugs. "I just didn't care," he remembers. "I didn't care about myself. I didn't care about my life. For the first four or five years of my incarceration I was constantly in trouble, constantly being sent to segregation for twenty to thirty days...until they pretty much got fed up with me and sent me to CSP."

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The Colorado State Penitentiary is a high-tech maximum-security prison, and Beckius spent the next three and a half years in solitary confinement, living in a six-by-eight-foot cell where the light was never turned off, allowed one hour a day to exercise alone in a concrete yard. The prisoners were able to yell to each other through the doors, but Beckius rarely joined the cacophony. He did have books and television, and he could see the outside through a long slit of a window. Most important, there were bi-weekly visits from his father and stepmother, Tim and Kathy Beckius, conducted through a glass partition. In his cell, he watched sports, educational programs and the History and Military channels, wrote letters and a journal, and read the Denver Post every day, "to keep up with what was going on in the world," he says. "It was kind of weird and ironic. But I wanted to be given an opportunity to prove that I belonged back out here, that I'm not just some monster that deserves to be locked away for life."

Experts say that prolonged solitary confinement can cause the disintegration of personality, even full-blown psychosis. Those who visited Beckius during those years remember him as withdrawn and looking haggard and grim. But Beckius says he believes in mind over matter, and he refused to give up: "They'd bring people out of their cells and they'd look like a walking dead man. I didn't want to be that person. Regardless of if I had to do the full forty years in solitary, I wasn't going to be broken."

But the ordeal did change him.

"Being in solitary gave me a lot of time to reflect on my life," he explains. "It was like my rock bottom. I was so ashamed, I was so disgusted. I'd done nothing with the majority of my life, caused havoc and agony and hurt to other people. If I had not had my family and one friend who never gave up on me, who continuously and instantaneously would forgive me for anything when I wouldn't forgive myself...

"That was my breaking point. I made a conscious decision to do everything in my power to change my life, and not to hurt people who cared about me."     Released into the general population at Fremont Correctional Facility in 2001 — a difficult and nerve-racking transition in itself — Beckius began availing himself of every opportunity the prison offered. He had already received his GED in 1998, and now he signed up for courses taught through Naropa University, Northeastern Junior College and Adams State: English, algebra, psychology, public speaking, principles of advertising, financial mathematics, basic anatomy. He ended up halfway to an associate's degree, with a GPA of 3.81. And when he was sent to the Sterling Correctional Facility in 2008, he joined the Therapeutic Community, a group-based rehabilitation program, and worked in it for two years, eventually serving as a mentor for other prisoners.

"He put himself in a position to begin his lifestyle change," says Ken Gaipa, director of Peer 1. "That's hard to do in prison: You're regarded as a traitor."

Nothing in Beckius's early life would seem to have equipped him to survive his time in solitary confinement mentally intact, much less to emerge and rebuild a life for himself. His mother, Patricia Joyce Beckius, was an alcoholic whose family was involved with drug dealing. "My father gave her an ultimatum: 'Look, we have a son. You need to choose between partying and being a mom,'" Beckius says. "My mom chose the party scene and the drinking in bars, and they separated." Patricia Beckius was killed by a motorist on North Federal Boulevard one night after leaving a bar. It was two days before Beckius's fifth birthday.

He has only hazy memories of her: a faint image of dark hair, a sense of her presence. Even looking at photographs brings up nothing more specific. "I used to be angry with her in my young years, into my teens, bitter and upset," he says. "Now I don't blame her just because of the things I've been through, the addiction and wanting to party. Now I can almost empathize with the way she was living her life."     After Patricia's death, Tim Beckius took his son to live with him and his then-girlfriend, Melanie Tope, in Jamestown. Josh Beckius remembers the next three or four years as idyllic, and wrote about their home together for a prison creative-writing class in an essay he called "Home Sweet Home."     "Surrounded by aspens, pines, and huge cottonwood trees, it was like my own little fortress," he wrote. He described sitting on the porch for hours on end listening to the creek and watching "raccoons, squirrels, and a great variety of different birds." Summers were spent fishing and adventuring in the mountains, winter "was more about being with family — sitting inside where a fire kept the place warm and looking outside to enjoy the mystical whiteness of winter...loved ones pulling together to get through the tough times winter can cause, such as cutting wood for the fireplace, hauling wood up to the house, and making sure everything was in place to make it a safe and warm winter." He concluded by wishing he could "step up to that front porch...once again."     But then Tim Beckius and Melanie split up. It was only when he was nine and living with his father in Gunbarrel that Beckius learned what had happened to the woman he considered a second mother. He was flipping through a photo album and he came across several newspaper articles: Tope had been murdered by the man she was living with. "I was home after school," he says. "Dad wasn't around. I broke down in tears. It was a gruesome, gruesome scene."     Beckius began running wild, and Tim lost control of him. At ten or eleven, he was hanging out with cousins on his mother's side, drinking and smoking pot. Although he was athletic and played with the North Boulder Little League, he was rarely at school. He attacked a classmate who'd insulted his mother. He stole a stereo from his family.

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He was fourteen when he met Charlie Pa and his friends at a party. "They resembled everything I liked about my mom's side of the family," he remembers. "They were older than me, but they treated me like an equal, as a friend. Gave me drugs. Gave me keys to a car and let me drive. It was like I was leading a double life, still trying to maintain this all-star athletic persona. I chose the negative. I just drifted. It was almost like a natural thing to do."

*****

During his entire time in prison, Beckius fought for his freedom. While still in solitary, he had found a new attorney, Neil Silver, who crafted an appeal to have his plea set aside on the basis of inadequate representation so that he could get a new trial. The court decided against him.

In August 2007, in the wake of an influential Frontline special titled "When Kids Get Life" and stories in the local and national press (including Westword), Governor Bill Ritter established a juvenile clemency board to consider the cases of people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed in their teens; legislators had already decided to limit such sentences to forty years — a decision that was not retroactive. Beckius put his case before Ritter's board and was turned down. (The board never granted clemency to any inmate.) And last December, Beckius lost his first bid for parole. 

    But his work with the Therapeutic Community in Sterling had made Beckius eligible for transfer to one of the organization's residential treatment centers. Peer 1 staff members, including director Gaipa, visited him in prison to test his motivation, and late last year the transfer was approved by the Denver Community Corrections Board. Like those in halfway houses and other community facilities, Peer 1 residents remain under the control of the Department of Corrections.

Beckius remembers the day when he was called into the prison office and told of his acceptance at Peer 1 as an emotional roller coaster. "There was a lot of emotion, a lot of relief," he says. But two hours later, someone came to his cell door to inform him there had been a mistake. Two hours after that, he was back in the office and being told that the mistake was a mistake: "They'd found the paperwork, and I was accepted," he remembers.     "November 3, they told me to pack up my stuff and take it to Property. It kind of made me sick to my stomach. Almost like, this isn't real. Something bad's gonna happen, there's gonna be another mistake. But the next morning I got on the big bus, the gates opened up, and I looked back and realized that's been a part of my life for almost sixteen years, and today's a new day. It was a two-hour bus ride, and I couldn't even begin to tell you how that felt. I thought about the endless possibilities. I just kept thinking to myself, I have the chance. I've been given an opportunity to have my life back, and that was the most...I don't know how to put it into words. While you're inside, all you think about is, 'I wish I was out. I wish I was working, I wish I could be with my family. I wish I could look up at the mountains.' Simple things — hear a river, hear the birds chirp, walk down the street in the middle of the night. Just walk out wherever you're at and realize you're not surrounded by prison bars and razor wire and metal and concrete, guards. You don't have to look over your shoulder and worry about...anything."

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He was amazed by the atmosphere at Peer 1, delighted in the verdant grounds and Victorian buildings. But just being on the outside can be tricky. At first, Beckius says, "you want to be able to be observant of everything around you, sit with your back against a wall, make sure people are in sight or in your peripheral vision. To have been lonely, depressed, kept from any kind of human contact and then get thrown in with a bunch of people, it's almost like a culture shock."

Going home from work one night, he realized that the new school semester had started at the Auraria campus, and the light-rail train was packed with "people sitting and standing on top of each other," he recalls. "I didn't get the feeling of claustrophobia in solitary like I did those first times on the light rail. Now it doesn't bother me, though."

The concept of Therapeutic Community is national and has been around for forty years; Peer 1 is one of several facilities both inside and outside prisons connected with the Colorado Department of Corrections. TC places a strong emphasis on both self-help and peer influence. The treatment is confrontational and very intensive, and the entire group can be punished if one resident breaks the rules: punishments include writing a paper and reading it to the group, being given a curfew, standing or sitting for a period of time alone, or missing a scheduled camping trip, Rockies game or trip to the Buell Theater for a musical. "There are consequences if you fall asleep in group or leave a coffee cup on the table," director Gaipa says. "The location where you lived before was probably filthy. Here you clean up after yourself. We check how you walk. How you look at someone else. We check for jailhouse behavior, intimidation. It's like living in a fish bowl, with eyes and ears on you all the time.

"This is a group that's been highly manipulative," he adds, "and we are holding people accountable. Prisons are run by drugs, sex, violence, rape and intimidation, gambling. That constitutes the total frame of reference. You don't look at your emotions there. You have a criminal mask. We break through that mask."

Tom Brewster, executive director of Addiction Research and Treatment Services at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-founder of the umbrella organization for Peer 1, Signal Behavioral Health Network, adds, "They've been institutionalized, and they're now in an environment that's fluid and ever-changing. They have to make decisions when they've never had a chance to do that before. It takes a place like this to re-shape and re-parent them, to help them deal with freedom and eventually find jobs, work, pay taxes and become good citizens."

Residents work on projects intended as a way of making amends for their crimes and giving back to the community. They go on AIDS walks, work with Habitat for Humanity and put together food baskets. "We have a choir that visits nursing homes," Gaipa says. "And every month we pass the hat and make a donation to Save the Children."

Beckius has completed one year of his two-year stay. He will soon move to a house on the Peer 1 grounds with some twenty other residents for approximately ninety days. After that, he will be allowed to rent his own place, living under supervision and wearing an ankle bracelet. He comes up for parole in 2013. Whether he makes parole or not, he'll continue his work with Peer 1. Any slip could send him back to prison to serve the entire length of his sentence — which means he would not be released until he's well into his fifties. The daily schedule is strict. Every morning, Beckius gets up at 3:30 a.m. and takes an almost two-hour bus ride to his job. Almost every evening, he participates in Peer 1 programs. After that, he helps the other residents clean up the house and prepares for the next day.

Despite the tightrope he still has to walk, Beckius appears steady and cheerful, grateful even for the restrictions. And he swears he'll do well with the chance he's been given. "Every day that I live my life is a day of redemption for me," he says. "I've done so much horrible stuff and created so many victims and the ripple effect of treating everyone around me like they didn't exist or they didn't matter. Today that's not the case. I'm ashamed and embarrassed for the way I've lived my life. It hurts me that I've created so much hurt, and I refuse to do that. I have the opportunity to be out here, to make amends for all the wrongs that I've done and prove people wrong — that a hopeless individual can become a person that other people are proud to know."   

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*****

Ex-convicts are famous for manipulating the truth, but several people who understand a few things about corrections are optimistic about Josh Beckius. One is former state legislator Don Marostica, who visited several prisons as part of his duties when he was a member of the Joint Budget Committee. He had heard about Beckius, and asked to meet him during a visit to Sterling; he ended up speaking on Beckius's behalf to the clemency board. "I felt good about the kid," he says. "Everybody gets bad breaks in life. I grew up as a tough kid; I was one of the bullies. In junior high, I ran the school." He laughs. "I've been fooled before, but I had a pretty good gut reaction about him."

"It's a case that has stayed on my mind," says attorney Neil Silver. "I do think he is one of those people who were let down by the system. Hopefully he's not holding it against the system, and at this point, it appears that the system is doing what it can to help him get his life together."

"He impressed us," comments Gaipa. "He wanted something different. He made a commitment somewhere."

"He's got empathy," agrees Brewster, "and concern for others. These are innate strengths."     Beckius carries the hopes of many on his shoulders, among them his devoted grandparents and Tim and Kathy. But perhaps most important, Dayton James's daughter Darcy Priola follows his progress. Priola eventually wrote a second letter about the case — this time to the parole board. The wording was carefully balanced and almost neutral, but the thrust was clear: Despite their misgivings, she and her sister, Daytona Ferry, were in favor of parole.        "I don't know him, of course," she says now of Beckius, "but my gut feeling is that if he's going to be able to live in society around the rest of us, now is a good time for him to get out. He still has a chance to have his own family. I know it's weird to say, but I do feel like he's done well with what he's been given. He could have ended up getting in a lot of trouble in prison, but he learned to stay away from it. He figured it out. He could have kept going down that path very easily.

"I have a fourteen-year-old now, so I can see that, wow — he was really young when it happened."

Is what she feels forgiveness?

"I don't know if I've thought of saying 'I forgive you,'" she responds slowly. "He's never asked or anything like that. I don't know if I'm wrong, but I just feel he's not a bad person. He was young and got hung up with a really bad crowd. I guess forgiveness...I've never thought of actually using that word for it. I don't know. That's a hard one.

"But he deserves a chance to prove himself. It seems like he's done things to better himself. And I hope I'm right. I think it would be great if he could come out and work for troubled teens."

Over a decade ago, in a Boulder County courtroom, Beckius sat pressed against the back of a chair as he was questioned at a hearing to set aside his plea ("This Boy's Life," March 23, 2000). He looked as if he wanted to get as far away from the proceedings as possible, and his answers were flat and monosyllabic — though his father noticed his chin quivering once or twice. Now he finishes his coffee, grins and puts down the cup. In the past year, he's gone skiing for the first time in almost two decades, grown to like Chinese food and visited his first Starbucks, where the caffeine and sugar in his caramel frappuccino made him dizzy. He has a lot of years to make up for, and in some ways, notes his stepmother, he's still a kid, despite everything he's seen and been through: "Sometimes when he sees something, thinks about getting an apartment or driving a car, he gets so excited it's like he's sixteen."

"I always tell people if prison was inevitable in my life, I'm glad that it happened when it did," Beckius says. "Not only did it give me the rest of my life to live, but if it wasn't for those experiences, I don't think I would be the person that I am today. And I like who I am today."

Composer David Wohl first came across Margaree King Mitchell’s Uncle Jed’s Barbershop in a museum in Baltimore, and immediately recognized that the award-winning children’s book had the potential to become a musical. Years later, it has: Wohl, along with playwright Ken Grimes and director Susan Einhorn, fleshed out the saga of Uncle Jed, a black barber who dreams of owning his own barbershop, into a full-length family musical. The show, which spans events from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, features music inspired by the stylings of those times as it tells the story of Jed and his niece, Sarah Jean, as she revisits her childhood.

The musical was first produced in New York in 2003 and has gone through many incarnations and revisions since then; the most important of these added the role of Sarah Jean as a child who interacts with her adult self. And the innovations will continue with the cur-rent DreaMaker/Shadow Theatre Company production , in which the actors perform a concert reading from the script. “They’re top-notch performers,” Grimes notes, “so they’ll read with the passion and the depth and the character, so that we can see how the play affects the audience.”

Uncle Jed’s Barbershop opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Aurora Fox, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, with additional performances at 2 and 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and 3:30 p.m. Sunday; there will also be a silent auction at 6 p.m. Saturday. All performances and the auction will benefit Shadow Theatre Company as well as Brother Jeff’s mission to prevent the spread of HIV. “Part of the spirit of the show is how the life of the individual and the community are intertwined,” explains Wohl, which is why the creators decided to use this production to support community outreach. Tickets are $23 general admission and $18 for youth and seniors; to purchase them, go to www.shadowtheatre.com.
Fri., May 27, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., May 28, 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., May 29, 3:30 p.m., 2011

A former dam inspector causes trouble over gifts accepted by his boss

The fliers arrived last January, during a balmy interval between subzero cold snaps. They were tucked under windshield wipers in strip-mall parking lots in Parker and Westminster, stuck into screen doors of canyon homes above Boulder. The print was tiny and grim, and right away you could tell this was not good news.

"As you may know," the single sheet began, "you and your neighbors live downstream of a high-hazard dam. That means if the dam fails, loss of human life is expected.

"The following information may be of great interest/concern to you..."

The flier mentioned Mark Haynes, chief of the Dam Safety Branch of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, "whose charge is to safeguard the lives of Coloradoans from dam mishaps." Haynes "has admitted to accepting gifts from engineering consultants who design, construct and alter dams in our state," the flier claimed — gifts that included "tickets to sporting events, meals and golf greens fees."

Haynes was never disciplined for this, the letter continued. Instead, another state employee who reported the gifts to DNR officials "was threatened verbally and in writing" and ultimately fired by the state engineer, Dick Wolfe, "even though there were absolutely no documented problems with his performance.

"State officials apparently don't believe that the possibility of compromised high-hazard dams warrants further investigation; however, as someone whose family's lives and property could be in peril, we believe it should be your choice whether enough has been done to make you feel safe and secure living below what could be a 'ticking bomb.'"

The screed urged citizens to contact their state representatives and Governor John Hickenlooper. It wasn't signed, but it contained an e-mail address for something called Colorado Citizens for Dam Safety.

Despite its alarming tone, the flier failed to trigger a flood of angry calls to the new governor. Many recipients probably didn't bother to read the whole thing. And those who read it closely might have suspected that Colorado Citizens for Dam Safety consisted of an army of one: the fired whistleblower himself.

The fliers are, in fact, only one volley in a long and lonely campaign waged by John Redding, a former employee of the Department of Natural Resources who was fired almost two years ago. A professional engineer, Redding claims he was retaliated against and eventually canned because he was asking awkward questions about gifts accepted by Haynes and others in the Dam Safety Branch, an obscure but vital agency responsible for approving and inspecting more than 1,800 water-storage facilities across the state — including 310 dams classified as high-hazard.

Redding has told his story to lawmakers and ethics panels, to no avail. He's exhausted his savings appealing his termination, only to be rebuffed by an administrative law judge and the state personnel board. (His case is now before the Colorado Court of Appeals.) And although he has no evidence that the gifts accepted by state regulators have actually put anyone at risk, he believes it's a question worth considering.

"It probably hurts me more than it helps me to go public with this, but I think it's an important story," he says. "In my opinion, these guys have done some pretty unethical things. The consequences of a dam failure are so catastrophic that, even if there's only a small chance that [Haynes] did something wrong, I think it's worth looking into."

State officials say they have looked into the matter — repeatedly, exhaustively, ad nauseam. Redding's complaints have generated internal reviews and a blizzard of e-mails over the past three years. Wolfe, the state engineer, maintains that the Dam Safety Branch is above reproach. Haynes, a longtime employee of DNR, wasn't disciplined because he didn't violate the applicable state ethics policy at the time, Wolfe says, and the gifts involved were deemed insignificant. He also denies any retaliation against Redding and characterizes him as an unsatisfactory employee who attempted to cover up his own shortcomings by claiming whistleblower status.

"I was good friends with John for a long period of time, and I didn't take lightly that decision" for termination, Wolfe says. "But I have a responsibility to the governor and the citizens of Colorado to make sure we have competent employees working for us."

There's no reason for the public to worry about dam safety in Colorado, he insists: "I have 100 percent confidence that there's no issue out there, there's no dam that was in any way jeopardized because of any employee accepting a gift basket. Mark Haynes has a tremendous amount of integrity."

Yet the dramatic turnaround in Redding's status at the agency — he went from being a highly praised and valued employee to one who was supposedly lacking in "core competencies" in a matter of months — isn't easily explained, unless you believe (as Redding does) that there were other agendas at work. He had a rocky relationship with Haynes before the gift issue was raised, but his harping on the practice seemed to strike a raw nerve.

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He became the odd man out in a three-man office, the guy who didn't fit in, the unassimilable Other. He was shunned like a flatulent leper, given the silent treatment and cut out of projects and meetings. And then fired.

"It just got ugly and out of control," Redding says.

******

John Redding first fell in love with Colorado during a river-rafting trip in the early 1990s. His guide seemed to know a lot about water law, and Redding himself soon became so fascinated by the state's waterways and resource-management issues that he decided to move a thousand miles and change careers.

Redding had grown up in Illinois, studied aerospace engineering as an undergraduate and then worked in the defense industry near Chicago. But after his river trip, he picked up a master's degree in civil engineering at the University of Colorado and then went to work for the City of Thornton as a water resources engineer. (He also has a master's in industrial engineering.) In 2002 he took a job in the Department of Natural Resources, issuing state well permits and reviewing water-rights issues.

During his first few years in DNR, Redding received highly positive evaluations, as well as letters of commendation for exceptional customer service. He even received an unusual 10 percent raise in salary after two years as an "enticement bonus" to encourage him to stay with the agency. But by 2006 Redding was receiving less glowing reports from his supervisor, who felt Redding spent too much time helping customers while neglecting some of his paperwork. Redding disagreed and began looking around for a job that involved more field work. When a position opened up in the Dam Safety Branch, he jumped at it.

The branch has engineers assigned to nine regional offices around the state. At the time, the Denver office consisted of two people: chief Mark Haynes and his new hire, Redding. The latter had no prior experience doing dam safety inspections, reviewing designs, determining storage restrictions or the other critical work of the branch, and it was understood that Haynes would be showing him the ropes.

Compared to his previous job, Redding found the work both more challenging and more isolated. Haynes was aloof, he says, and not particularly generous in his approach to training: "He's definitely a stereotypical engineer. He doesn't have a warm personality, but I think he's very good at what he does. At first he'd give me dam construction drawings and ask me to give him my comments. Ultimately, he figured out that wasn't a good technique, so he started inviting me to meetings and assigning me dam inspections."

The relationship was tense from the beginning. Shortly after Redding was hired, Haynes left a note on his desk questioning whether Redding was spending too much time finishing up work from his previous position. Redding shot back with an e-mail that an administrative-law judge would later describe as "tactless and confrontational."

"I can't tell if you're kidding or not," Redding wrote. "If not, I'm starting to get kinda irritated about this whole thing!" He'd spent nights and weekends completing projects from the old job, "and instead of people showing any kind of gratitude, I just keep getting this kind of crap. Anyhow, forgive my rant, but I'm beginning to get really resentful, and that's not a good way to start a new position."

Haynes e-mailed back, apologizing. But other rifts soon arose. Redding and his wife were trying to have a child. Haynes and his boss, deputy state engineer Jack Byers, became aware of this endeavor and made cracks about fertility rituals that Redding didn't appreciate. Byers even left a sperm-shaped liqueur bottle and a gag recipe for a "fertility shake" on Redding's desk. After his wife had a miscarriage, Redding asked that the baby-making jokes cease.

A decided coolness descended on the Denver office after that, leading that administrative-law judge to conclude that Redding's relationship with Haynes was "already broken" long before Redding started complaining about his boss accepting gifts. But Redding says his beef was more with Byers at that point. He claims that Byers greeted his request to knock off the jokes with a "stern glare" and soon started retaliating against him; Byers even ordered him to "come in on a weekend to paint my office by myself — and I had to pay for the paint," Redding says. (Byers, who retired in 2008, has denied any retaliation.)

Haynes and Redding may not have been buddies, but Haynes was still actively training Redding during his first year in the Dam Safety Branch, accompanying him on inspections and giving him feedback on his reports. And Redding's overall performance seemed to meet with Haynes's approval. In the spring of 2007, Haynes gave Redding a "commendable" rating on his annual evaluation and acknowledged that he seemed to be budgeting his time better. "Needs to develop his technical skills in the area [of] dam design and construction," Haynes wrote, adding that those skills "should come from additional training."

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But the additional training depended on the two men getting along, and the atmosphere in the office was turning toxic. That same month, Redding's wife gave birth to their son. Redding was soon taking more sick leave than Haynes had approved, leading to more e-mail sniping. Haynes demanded that Redding explain his "timesheet discrepancies." Redding suggested that they talk about it in person.

"Sorry, but I thought your preferred method of communication was by email messages based on the amount of emails I get from you," Haynes shot back.

Redding agreed that e-mail was more efficient in some cases, but "occasionally it makes sense for one of us to walk the ten feet into the other's office." Yet within hours Redding was peppering Haynes with e-mails raising another subject, one he surely knew would be a sensitive topic.

During meetings with other DSB employees, Redding had heard Haynes talking about events he'd attended courtesy of various dam contractors and consultants: golf tournaments and Colorado Avalanche games, for example. Redding had also seen Haynes sporting a denim jacket with a leather collar that commemorated the Reuter-Hess Dam project, a high-hazard dam in Douglas County; the jacket originally proclaimed that the wearer was a member of the GEI Consultants Inc. "engineering design team." (Haynes later removed the company logo.) And Redding had taken note of the gift baskets that Haynes and other dam inspectors received from engineering firms during the holidays and shared with others in the office.

So Redding responded to the questions about his sick leave with some questions of his own. "Hi Mark," he wrote. "You were going to tell me where you bought your Reuter-Hess jacket and how much you paid for it. Do you recall? Also, where did that gift basket come from that you got around Christmas?"

When that e-mail failed to elicit a response, he fired off another one: "Is it ever allowable for a state employee to have a consultant pay for things like tickets to sporting events, greens fees, etc.? To me this sounds like a huge conflict of interest...especially when our responsibility in Dam Safety is to protect the public, and these kinds of 'gifts' could be perceived as compromising our integrity to do our job without bias."

Still no response. Redding knew Haynes was leaving town, so he dispatched another e-mail a few hours later: "I'm sure you were busy getting stuff done before your trip, so I'll get answers to these questions elsewhere while you're gone. Have a good trip!"

From that day forward, Haynes wasn't inclined to discuss the gifts with Redding — or much else, apparently. "He stopped talking to me," Redding says. "Suddenly I wasn't invited to meetings that involved projects I had been working on."

When he had first learned about the gifts, "I didn't think it was a big deal," he adds. "But here he is in one of the most important positions in state government, in terms of lives at stake, and I just thought a person in this position shouldn't be taking gifts from people who could benefit from him relaxing the rules a bit.

"I didn't think it looked good. I thought I should say something about it. But I didn't expect the retaliation that followed."

******

From November 1, 2008, through the following October, engineers in the Dam Safety Branch performed a total of 692 inspections of dams already operating in the state or under construction. They recorded 13 "dam incidents" requiring emergency response and follow-up investigations, none of which resulted in a dam failure. They added 22 dams to the restricted list — meaning the dams were not permitted to operate at full storage capacity because of leaks, cracks, inadequate spillways or other problems — and removed a few others from the list, which includes more than 150 problem dams around the state.

During that same time period, the State Engineer's Office approved plans for one new dam and 31 requests for modification or enlargement of existing dams, projects totaling more than $100 million in construction costs. Building and maintaining dams is an expensive business, which makes the notion that state inspectors could somehow be bought off by fruit baskets, denim jackets and other cheap trinkets seem quite loony.

But protesting that your soul is not for sale — at least, not at that price — turns out to be unnecessary. The officials who looked into the gifts Haynes had accepted had a much simpler absolution to bestow: Under the state ethics policy at the time, there was nothing illegal about it.

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In 2006 Colorado voters approved Amendment 41, which prohibits state workers and their immediate families from accepting gifts valued at more than $50. That ban would probably have included greens fees, Broncos and Avalanche tickets and several other items offered to Haynes and others in the Dam Safety Branch. But the passage of 41 sent ripples of confusion throughout the bureaucracy — would it forbid a scholarship offered to a state janitor's kid? a Nobel Prize awarded to a state university professor? — and prompted legal challenges that delayed its implementation for years.

While 41 was tied up in court, the operative ethics policy came from an executive order issued by Governor Bill Owens in 1999: a vague, weak prohibition against a state worker accepting gifts "or any other thing of value which would influence him or her to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of his or her duties." Unlike 41, the Owens directive didn't attempt to put an actual cash price on a "thing of value." And it didn't provide any guidance in determining whether the kind of swag turning up at the Dam Safety Branch would tend to "influence" a public servant or not.

Not surprisingly, when members of the Colorado Attorney General's Office reviewed Haynes's gifts in the summer of 2008, they concluded that no ethical violation had occurred. This fit nicely with the position that would soon be adopted by officials at the Department of Natural Resources in defending Redding's termination: that he had only raised the gift issue as one complaint among many in an effort to gain leverage in his ongoing battles with Haynes. A real whistleblower, the officials suggested, wouldn't have introduced the issue during a heated e-mail exchange over his own time-sheet problems. At one point, when state engineer Wolfe pressed Redding about whether he was determined to pursue his complaint about the gifts, Redding responded that it depended on "the way Mark treats me in the future" — hardly the response one would expect from a man on a righteous crusade.

Regardless of Redding's motives for raising the issue, though, the department's handling of the matter is notable for its seeming lack of concern about the possible implications of the gifts. They didn't violate the ethics policy, in the AG's opinion, but they did present at least an appearance of conflict — and raised more than a few questions about the coziness of the relationship between dam regulators and the people whose work they were supposed to regulate. But Redding claims Wolfe was reluctant to investigate the issue for months after it was first brought to his attention.

Redding and Wolfe had gotten to know each other years earlier, while working together on Colorado Water Officials Association events, and occasionally met away from work for lunch or to attend holiday concerts with their wives. Redding says he first mentioned his concern about Haynes's gifts in a casual conversation with Wolfe in the summer of 2007.

"It was almost a year later that he looked into it, and the only reason he did was because I was filing a complaint," Redding says. "I think he was hoping this thing would just quiet down."

Wolfe disputes Redding's account. He didn't become the state engineer (and Haynes's overseer) until late 2007, and he insists that Redding didn't mention the gifts to him "in any kind of serious way" until July 2008. "He may have brought it up informally, but he was having ongoing conflicts with Jack [Byers], and then it spilled over to Mark," Wolfe says. "He was alleging that Mark was making slanderous remarks, and that's when I asked John to provide me with some specific information. It was several months before John responded to my request, and that's when he brought up a specific list of gifts that Mark had accepted. That's when I initiated an internal investigation."

But Redding had been hollering about the gifts, along with a hodgepodge of alleged retaliatory actions and other grievances, to various state officials for some time before any investigation began. Passed over for two promotions in 2007 that would have transferred him to Greeley or Durango, he filed a complaint with the State Personnel Board, claiming that Haynes was giving him the "silent treatment" and badmouthing him to other DSB employees; he also mentioned that Haynes had ignored his questions about the gifts. (The board denied his petition for a hearing.) In the spring of 2008, he e-mailed Wolfe and told him he was planning to file a whistleblower complaint about the "retaliatory treatment" he was receiving and alluded to previous conversations with Wolfe "about Mark's receiving gifts from consultants whose dam construction drawings are reviewed by him (HUGE conflict of interest)."

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Wolfe held meetings with Haynes and Redding and tried to get them to put aside the hard feelings. He told Haynes to quit making negative comments about Redding and suggested it would be a good idea for the two to communicate in person rather than by e-mail. (By now another engineer had joined the office, a man Haynes did talk to and accompanied to meetings and inspections, while Redding became the wallflower at the dance. "It's like I'm not even there," Redding complained.) The state engineer didn't seek more information about the gifts, though, until summer — and Redding provided more details within weeks, not months.

Haynes's own response to Wolfe's inquiry was even more detailed — and more indignant. He listed a handful of minor goodies he'd received in decades of state service, including the infamous denim jacket — which he valued at less than $50 — as well as a few fruit baskets and candy and nut boxes, tickets to sporting events ("5 to 6 max"), participation in a couple of consultant-sponsored golf tournaments "and an occasional lunch after meetings."

"I take my job and responsibilities very seriously," Haynes wrote to Wolfe. "You can be reassured that I am not going to risk my job, livelihood, professional engineer's license and the safety of the lives and livelihood of the general public over a meaningless jacket or any of the other gifts noted above.... I would challenge anybody to prove that I showed inappropriate favoritism to any consultant on any of their projects where gifts were received during or after projects were approved."

An outside investigator interviewed several of the consultants who'd sent gifts to the Dam Safety Branch; they denied any attempt at bribery and described Haynes as tough but fair. Yet Wolfe was uncomfortable enough with the fallout that he met with employees to discuss the issue and the new era of Amendment 41. "I didn't feel I had authority to issue anything that might conflict with department or state policy," he says now. "But I made it clear to my staff that it doesn't look right to be taking gifts."

Redding was disappointed in the official findings on Haynes's conduct, of course, and became increasingly worried about his job. It's not quite true that there were "absolutely no documented problems with his performance," as the flier claimed. He received an overall satisfactory rating in 2008, but some specific aspects of his evaluation, such as the timeliness of his inspection reports, were considered below par. Redding insisted that other engineers were late with their reports, too, and said he was being singled out. He asked for a mid-year review from Haynes but didn't get it for months; he finally received a positive verbal evaluation. He shot off e-mails to Wolfe and Haynes asking for other feedback about his work and got no response.

Some of Redding's tactics worked against him. In his termination hearing, he would be described as a compulsive e-mailer who generated disruption and tension; at one point he even started carrying a tape recorder to meetings. "I was trying to document everything," he says now.

Wolfe continued to mediate between Redding and Haynes. He offered Redding his old job back, which he refused. He suggested that Redding watch a Tony Robbins motivational video and "focus on the positive and less on the negative." At the same time, Wolfe was huddling with Kim Burgess, the director of human resources, about what to do with his feuding engineers.

"This problem has been clouded by many months of irrational behavior at times by more than one of them," he wrote to Burgess. "Currently, I feel that I am in a lose-lose situation. If I don't move John from Dam Safety, I run the risk of Mark leaving. If I move John, I run the risk of him filing yet another complaint or suit. If I give him some new position as he has requested, I just empower John to get 'promoted' by illegitimate reasons."

Haynes, who declined Westword's request for an interview, has admitted in testimony that he never told Redding — in person or in writing — about any major problems with his performance before the spring of 2009, when things finally came to a head. In the last weeks of his yearly evaluation period, shortly after he filed a formal whistleblower complaint, Redding was given several projects to complete in a short time period. One was a hydrology study he'd been assigned earlier but never completed because, he says, he was told it was low priority; others involved complexities he'd never tackled alone before, yet Haynes told him he couldn't consult with other DSB engineers about the assignments.

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"I was given this workload from hell," Redding says. "A lot of it was things I'd never done before, and I was told I couldn't talk to anybody else."

Redding didn't meet all of the deadlines for the assignments. For the first time, his annual evaluation ranked his work as unsatisfactory; it was particularly scathing in the area of "interpersonal relations," blasting him as "irresponsible" and "deceitful." "I had suddenly become the worst employee in the world," he says. "I'd failed every core competency."

He was given what state officials like to call a "corrective action" — six tasks to complete in six weeks. The department's position was that Redding had been on the job for three years and should be able to handle a wide range of difficult engineering problems; Redding maintained that he'd never received the training he was supposed to get from Haynes and that he was being set up to fail.

And fail he did. Further appeals, meetings, protests and objections were of no avail. On July 2, 2009, Wolfe e-mailed a ten-page termination letter to Redding, citing his "failure to take responsibility for his work" and particularly his "lack of competence in the core areas of communication and interpersonal relations."

"The trends in your communication, both in terms of substance and style, lead to confusion, anxiety, mistrust and conflict," Wolfe wrote. "Based in part on your own characterization of the interactions between you and your supervisor, I believe irreparable damage has occurred."

******

Since his firing, Redding has lost every round with state personnel authorities. But he has been unusually persistent, taking his case all the way to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

"A lot of times whistleblowers don't go to court," says Patricia Bangert, Redding's attorney. "It's so expensive to sue that usually nothing is done about it. But in John's case, there is so much evidence that he was treated badly, that they came up with these spurious performance problems after never mentioning them."

Bangert's appeal brief points out that Redding actually scored higher in several measures of his performance in 2009 than he did in 2008, such as the number of dams he inspected and the percentage of inspection reports he completed on time; yet what was considered "satisfactory" the year before had become unacceptable. This is one of the troubling aspects of Redding's story that the administrative-law judge didn't seem inclined to address. The judge also acknowledged that Haynes had given Redding "the silent treatment" for months at a time, exacerbating what appears to have been a classic hostile work environment. Yet the judge somehow decided that this behavior had nothing to do with the accusations Redding had made about the gifts Haynes received.

"The courts say having a jerk for a boss isn't a crime," Bangert notes. "But since John was in a training position, having his boss not talk to him significantly interfered with his ability to do his job."

Wolfe insists Redding's job wasn't a training position — not after three years. "If you can't complete the task after multiple attempts, there's something wrong there," he says. "He was occupying a lot of other staff time to help solve his problem. They're not able to get their work done, and it's almost to the point where they're doing his work for him. That's not acceptable conduct for an engineer."

Redding has copies of reports and testimonials from people he worked with that attest to his competency — and contradict the image of the conniving, inept employee his final evaluation makes him out to be. But what matters in court is the paper trail. In this instance, it's the long chain of aggrieved e-mails zipping back and forth, and then — sadly or mercifully, depending on your point of view — hurtling downward into a pit of silence and resentment.

Redding is a house dad these days, spending time with his young son and daughter, trying to stay ahead of the mortgage payments. He enjoyed inspecting dams — driving to remote areas of the state and walking the crest and slopes of the dam, taking pictures and measurements — but not the ordeal that followed. At one point the stress of his job troubles triggered an excruciating outbreak of shingles on the right side of his face, and he carries what he calls a "Harry Potter-ish scar" on his forehead from the experience.

When he studies it in the mirror, he thinks about Lord Voldemort and his own antagonists. And he thinks about fliers and appeals and whether the downstream residents of Colorado give a damn.

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